SCRAP Reading Group, Week 3: All About Pottery…in Africa!

This week’s reading group topic was pottery. Our ceramicist and lab director, Dr. Jill Jordan, selected our reading for this week, which was about modern pottery production in southern Niger and addresses topics that have come up in previous articles and discussions from our group: resource acquisition, knowledge transmission, identity, and practice. This was an opportunity for project members and guests to look at an ethnographic case study from another region and think about how we can apply concepts/methods to our work in Belize. This week we had seven participants for our conversation, hailing from Belize, Canada, and the US, including our special guest, Dr. Jerimy Cunningham, who works in Northern Mexico but has a background in pottery ethnoarchaeology in Africa. Our conversation lasted 2 hours, plus some additional, much needed, socializing time. Below, you’ll find a summary of the reading plus our discussion questions.



SCRAP Reading Group, Week 3, Friday April 24 (online, 4pm MST).

“Thoughts and Adjustments in the Potter’s Backyard” (Olivier P. Gosselain, 2008, in Breaking the Mould: Challenging the Past through Pottery, edited by Ina Berg, pp. 67-79, BAR International Series 1861)

Summary: This book chapter explores pottery production in southern Niger-specifically clay extraction, clay processing (tempering), and shaping-to highlight the complex relationships between technological behavior and social contexts. Gosselain argues that “technical practices or objects are not intrinsically or univocally meaningful. Meaning is always situational-that is, heavily dependent on the context within which things, knowledge and know-how are acquired and put into practice” (67). He illustrates the relationship between pottery production and social context in Niger by considering potters’ social identity, the historical processes that affected movement (past and recent), and the movements of individuals as a result of environmental and economic constraints.

Clay Selection. Clay selection is part of a potter’s space of experience-the territory within which potters and/or members of their communities live, carry out activities, and develop social interactions. Clays used by potters are located near manufacturing sites (a worldwide trend including modern and ancient Maya [Arnold 1985]) and clay selection strategies are embedded in a web of other practices and located near places where other activities occur (e.g. habitation, wells, gardening, watering places, fields).

Clay Processing. Clay processing involves many steps: crushing, drying, soaking, tempering, and kneading (some are optional). Clay processing is not uniform across Niger and the relationship between paste recipe and social and/or community identity is different in southwest Niger and eastern Niger. In southwest Niger, there are no obvious patterns in paste recipe and social boundaries at the macro-level. However, at the micro-regional or community level, difference in temper choice (all potting groups use the same clay) is related to sub-groups within a village: blacksmiths, slaves, and farmers. In eastern Niger, clay processing recipes homogenize through kinship networks within large and bounded areas. Where potters’ identities are at stake, technological homogenization is at the micro-scale; when identity is not at stake, homogenization occurs at a larger scale.

Shaping. The way a potter shapes a vessel is related to their personal biography and the social setting where the work is carried out. Gosselain states (76-77), “Social value judgements attached to technical practices have led them to modify parts of their technical behavior, and, seemingly, the technique used for shaping vessels.” Vessel shaping, often considered a routine and mundane activity, is a tool for expressing identity in Niger.


Discussion Questions:

  • This book chapter focused on pottery production in Niger and the “organized chain of ‘situated actions’, during which knowledge is put into practice in a specific social and environmental setting” (77). What can we apply to our work in the Maya lowlands? Are the concepts limited to pottery or can they be applied to architecture? Other material culture?


  • Should we expect all aspects of the pottery production process in the Maya region to be shared in the same way? If not, what can we do to untangle the choices made my potters and the social relationships (or social boundaries) that produced the patterns we see in the archaeological record?


  • How can we incorporate “space of experience” in understanding craft production among the Maya? What would we need to consider? Can we use the two previous readings (Saqui 2012 and Dunham 1996) to inform on this?


  • Ethnographic work benefits from talking to potters to understand how social boundaries, identity, historical processes, etc. affect their decisions. Should we pursue similar questions in archaeology? How?